In March, our family had the opportunity to visit the Great Smoky Mountains for six days.
If you caught either of the first two parts of the ‘Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains’ series, you know we enjoyed our adventures in the National Park, as well as our day visiting Dollywood’s Theme Park.
For the final part to this series, I’m offering in insider view at the awesome Gatlinburg site: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.
Did you know that Gatlinburg is home to eight Ripley’s attractions? We did not. We were lucky enough to get to visit one of them, the Aquarium of the Smokies and what a treat it was, for all three of us. We went on Sunday morning. They opened at 9am. We were there a bit earlier and were able to park on the street for free for the day right in front of the Aquarium, which is on the street directly behind the main drag that runs through Gatlinburg. We waited for less than five minutes to get and being one of the first guests in for the day, it was basically empty in front of us walking through. It was wonderful.
They offer a feeding schedule when you enter so you can plan to be in certain areas to see that first hand, if you want. We didn’t go off the schedule, but were lucky enough to see a number of feedings throughout the couple hours we spent inside.
There is so much to see in here, plan for a least a half a day to explore. We went on a day where the weather wasn’t supposed to be the best, but even if it would have been a nice day, I don’t think we would have been in a hurry to leave. Here are just a few things to highlight:
There is an enormous play area in the middle of the Aquarium where the kids can walk out onto the bridges and then climb down to the lower level, while parents can take the ramp. It’s also great for those of you with little ones, like us, that just need some free reign to run, jump and play, for a bit, in places like that.
They have some really cool fish tanks throughout the Aquarium where you and your kids can climb in the middle of them and pop your head up through. Very cool and Luke loved being that close to all the fish!
A tip: the lighting in the Aquarium is really bad for pictures and flash photography. Plus, as you can imagine, there are a lot of areas that you cannot use a flash at all because of the fish and exhibits. Our cell phones actually took great photos throughout our visit, but I needed to adjust my Cannon settings for low lighting and blurriness.
There is an awesome walk-thru tank where you can see fish, sharks, turtles, and other marine life. There is a moving walk way, or you can step off and walk through at your own pace. We went through this area three times while there. Luke loved it and Dan and I were amazed at everything you could see so clearly. The staff at the aquarium were stationed in perfect locations to educate the visitors walking through and answer any specific questions kids and parents had. Great touch!
There were two open exhibits where visitors could walk up and experience jellyfish and horseshoe crabs first hand. Luke was not interested, more afraid I think, but I loved it.
Also, they have a fabulous area where they do stingray feedings and the stingray come up to the top of the tank on the top floor and you stand right at the tank and can touch them as they are guided along the wall by the divers. One of the rays lifted his fin up and slapped the water right in front of Luke and soaked him. It was so fun to see it, but of course, he didn’t like it and it scared him.
I can’t end without talking about the Penguin exhibit at the Aquarium. They have an outdoor and indoor area for the penguins. They were all inside when we visited, but they have an awesome tunnel through the bottom of the penguin tank that kids can crawl through and/or sit in and watch the penguins. The Aquarium did an awesome job of carrying the concept of the pop up areas that I mentioned before from the fish tanks into this exhibit. The pop-ups are right up near the bank where the penguins come in and out of the water and right were the staff were that were talking about the animals and feeding them.
One thing to note that we were surprised about, they have a very small food/drink area on the bottom floor. It’s very dark, coming out of the walk-through tank, before going into the penguin exhibit. Not a lot of options for food and the seating area is also very dark. Not the best accommodations for young kids. We were surprised by the service and area, especially because the rest of the Aquarium was very family-friendly. It was clean, however, and not too busy. If you can get away with taking snacks and your children’s cup in with you in your diaper bag or backpack, I’d advise doing it.
Overall, another great experience at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. Very clean and friendly facility. Easy to navigate through, multiple times. Fun for young children all the way through adults.
Interested in more of what the Great Smoky Mountains and Tennessee have to offer for family visits? Check out the first two parts of this series, National Park Adventures, and visiting Dollywood’s Theme Park.